Back in the early days of free jazz improvisation many musicians who chose to play multiple instruments were singled out as scapegoats by critics interested in discrediting the music. The logic (or illogic) behind these naysayers’ arguments posited that a division of energy and focus between instruments would necessarily result in decreased proficiency. Many of the music’s detractors claimed that the new sounds being explored by these musicians were the direct result of such assumed deficiency. Legends like Roland Kirk and Eric Dolphy were among the players who came under repeated fire and if Joe McPhee had been counted in their number no doubt he too would have suffered similar slings and arrows. Like Kirk and Dolphy, McPhee’s palette is filled with a diversity of instruments, and his towering abilities on each become readily apparent to the serious listener.
That being said, those looking for evidence of McPhee’s multi-instrumental prowess will be surprised by this disc. McPhee eschews his usual satchel of reeds and brass and concentrates only on saxophone. “Elegy” is an opening summons for solo bass, brief in duration, but long on ideas. Duval carries his improvisation into the lengthy and radical reading of the old spiritual “Lift Every Voice and Sing” blending together with Herlein’s piercing violin in a mutual display of high string harmonics. Similar harmonic artifices are employed during a duet between McPhee’s horn and Herlein’s wailing voice. Later violin and amplified bass sheathed in electronic overtones engage in still another conversation, elaborated by cascading cymbals and sulfurous sax. Rosen’s innumerable percussive inventions provide the propulsive undercurrent that prevents the music from flagging in its own intricacies. Herlien is definitely the wild card here and her contributions take Trio X in directions previously unexplored by these three masters of the unexpected. The piece expands and contracts with glorious uncertainty for nearly fifty minutes and the three find a staggering variety of ways to interact across its duration. The far shorter “Rapture” is an extended exercise in whistling microtones.
Though the session was recorded live at the Knitting Factory, the audience in attendance is strangely absent for most of the piece only choosing to erupt boisterously at the close. This disc is easily recommended to both long time McPhee fans and neophytes interested in learning what all the excitement surrounding the man is really about. It could also serve as a final nail in the coffin for those fusty critics mentioned earlier who argued so adamantly against the merits of mulit-instrumentalism.
Track Listing: Elegy: Upon Mourning, Lift Every Voice and Sing, Rapture.
Recorded: December 28, 1998, The Knitting Factory, New York City, NY.
Available through Cadence/NorthCountry Distributors (www.cadencebuilding.com)
Personnel: Joe McPhee- saxophone, Jay Rosen- drums, Dominic Duval- double bass, live electronics, Rosi Hertlein- violin, voice.